EVERYBODY KNEW Father Hartke -- the Rev. Gilbert V. Hartke -- the Dominican priest who founded and ran for nearly 50 years the speech and drama department at Catholic University, and who died yesterday at the age of 79. He was one of the town's fixtures: a tall, handsome, robust man, often looking a bit impish in his clerical collar. He was regularly seen taking in the scene at theaters, naturally, and at the downtown restaurants, mixing it up with all kinds of people, including the mighty, effortlessly playing the role of . . . Father Hartke.

This was no show-business priest dealing out sentimental pieties backstage. He was a priest first -- a deeply caring man, as all of his friends will tell you -- who happened to find his ministry in the theater. Of course, he saw the theater as a place of entertainment: it all starts there. But it ends as a moral stage, a place where human beings can extend themselves, find their best qualities, create something and reach out to others. It was magic for him, but there was a constant message there, too -- a celebration of the human spirit. He was always the priest.

Father Hartke helped put Washington on the modern theatrical map and make it a center of creative living theater, not just a town where the road shows dropped by. He worked not with the base of a great and rich institution, but, at first, on a shoestring out in Northeast Washington. He wheeled and dealed and used his personal contacts and his great sense of mission to build a distinguished program.

Over the years he attracted to Catholic University a succession of professionals who taught and served as models for the students. He also drew the students, who came to learn and who, unsurprisingly, spread through the professional universe and then -- many of them -- cast the light of their recognition and success back upon Father Hartke and Catholic University.

He was proud of all of this, and did not violently object to being pointed out as a celebrity to people from out of town when he was having his oyster stew or strawberries at Mel Krupin's restaurant. You had to be from out of town not to know who Father Hartke was. Once you were here, you knew, and those who did will miss the light Gilbert Hartke cast.